Can We Reverse the Corporate Takeover of Politics?

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The biggest political scandal of 2010 is an issue that nearly all Americans agree on, yet there's hardly a peep from the electorate. In large part that's because elected officials, particularly in Congress, want to keep it as far in the shadows as possible. Yet it's such a simple thing: Should the insurance industry, oil companies, the financial industry, other corporations and unions have to disclose the hundreds of millions of dollars they are spending to elect politicians who will do their bidding, and defeat those who resist ? 

Voters know instinctively that corporate money and lobbies have too much influence in politics. The phrase "best government that money can buy" is well-worn. A recent NY Times-CBS poll found that 92 pecent of Americans believe all campaign spending should be disclosed. In the same poll, 72% wanted all election spending by outside groups to be limited.

Until this year, anyone who was motivated enough could see where the money came from, and who got it. Corporate spending was also limited by the McCain-Feingold election reforms.

Now it's unlimited and in the dark, exposed only in part by investigative reporting. Corporations spent lavishly without any disclosure on midterm elections, using bland-sounding front groups like "American Crossroads"–or the Chamber of Commerce–to hide their millions.

This scandalous shift is thanks to a politicized Supreme Court decision this year, in a case brought by anti-Hillary Clinton propagandists, to overturn the heart of the McCain-Feingold reforms. Even the court majority seemed to recognize what it unleashed by allowing unlimited corporate spending, urging at the same time that Congress pass a law requiring full disclosure of corporate political spending.

That never happened. A transparency bill called the DISCLOSE Act passed the House but died in Senate maneuevering. Now, with a switch of control in the House, the bill needs its own coffin. Both parties, especially self-named moderate Democrats and nearly all Republicans, are shoving the disclosure issue into their office closets.

Sunday's column by the New York Times' columnist Frank Rich crystallizes the political consequences:

The story of recent corporate political donations — which we may never learn in its entirety — is just beginning to be told. Bloomberg News reported after Election Day that the United States Chamber of Commerce’s anti-Democratic war chest included a mind-boggling $86 million contribution from the insurance lobby to fight the health care bill. The Times has identified other big chamber donors as Prudential Financial, Goldman Sachs and Chevron. These are hardly the small businesses that the chamber’s G.O.P. allies claim to be championing.

Since the election, the Obama White House has sent signals that it will make nice to these interests. While the president returns to photo ops at factories, Timothy Geithner has already met with the chamber’s board out of camera range. In a reportorial coup before Election Day, the investigative news organization ProPublica wrote of the similarly behind-closed-doors activities of the New Democrat Coalition — “a group of 69 lawmakers whose close relationship with several hundred Washington lobbyists” makes them “one of the most successful political money machines” since DeLay’s K Street Project collapsed in 2007. During the Congressional battle over financial-services reform last May, coalition members repaired to a retreat on Maryland’s Eastern Shore to frolic with lobbyists dedicated to weakening the legislation.

Such is the ethos in his own party that Senator Jim Webb, Democrat of Virginia, complained this month that he “couldn’t even get a vote” for his proposal for a one-time windfall profits tax on Wall Street bonuses. Republicans “obviously weren’t going to vote for it,” he told Real Clear Politics, but Democrats also demurred, “saying that any vote like that was going to screw up fund-raising.”

Even President Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod, won't touch this debate. As quoted in a Washington Post story, Axelrod said of the growth of outside spending  groups, "I don't think you can put the genie back in the bottle." He made a halfhearted pledge to disclose all donors, but that misses the point: It's now up to the corporations to decide whether to disclose. Good luck on that.

It's a rule of thumb of reformers that if two-thirds of the electorate agrees on an issue, politicians will follow. My colleague Jamie Court explains this clearly in his new book, "Raising Hell." But the ingredient missing today is shame. Politicians need to be shamed before they'll pick up a tough issue, and this time the shame is overwhelmed by fear that if they mess with corporate power, their next opponent will get all the corporate money.

An aroused electorate with a focused campaign could turn that around, perhaps even getting a consitutional amendment to reverse the Supreme Court's decision that corporations are, politically, the same as people. Maybe the amendment could define people as entities born of a mother.

The problem is getting the voters, who now seem as polarized as the politicians, to see that there's no upside for any of us in the corporate monetary control of U.S. politics. Who can unite the Tea Party, the Green Party, the Democrats and Republicans to engender a greater fear than loss of corporate bucks?

I think it can be done, maybe when an electorate exhausted by the onslaughts of the midterm election sees the evil frenzy that's in store for it in 2012, all on behalf of corporations whose only goal is to kill anything that curbs their profits.

And here's a final thought, from Rich, on how bad it really is:

When it was reported just days before our election that Iran was protecting its political interests in Afghanistan’s presidential palace by giving bags of money to Hamid Karzai’s closest aide, Americans could hardly bring themselves to be outraged. At least with Karzai’s government, unlike our own, we could know for certain whose cash was in the bag.

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